People have long marveled at the variety of life, celebrating nature’s gifts in prehistoric cave art that dates back 30,000 years or more. In Ancient Greece in the 4th century BCE, Aristotle made an early attempt to classify living organisms; his 11-grade scala naturae (“ladder of life”) placed humans and mammals at the top, and descended through other, more “primitive” animals to plants and then minerals. A thousand years later, the medieval world still considered variations on Aristotle’s system to be valid. There were several reasons for this. Without microscopes, nothing was known of cells and microorganisms. Without the means to explore underwater, science’s knowledge of aquatic creatures was limited, and many parts of the ...

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